Canadians take on NASA design challenge for space exploration

Toronto and Winnipeg are among the 75 cities embarking on a 48-hour marathon to design both software and hardware to make space more accessible and more fun to explore.

Toronto and Winnipeg to host app-making marathon April 20-21

An asteroid passed by Earth in February as seen in this illustration. Canadian space enthusiasts will take on a series of NASA's design challenges in April, such as creating an app that allows citizen astronomers to register asteroids and comets. (AP Photo/NASA)

Toronto and Winnipeg are among the 75 cities worldwide taking on NASA's challenge to design both software and hardware to make space more accessible and more fun to explore.

Running from April 20 to 21, the second annual International Space App Challenge is a 48-hour design marathon. It aims to bring space enthusiasts together to collaboratively solve problems and improve life both on Earth and in space. 

Participants can choose from 50 challenges proposed by NASA, such as:

  • Developing an app that enables citizen astronomers to register near-Earth objects such as comets and asteroids;
  • Creating an app that offers an interactive tour of the Moon;
  • Designing a deployable greenhouse for space missions to the Moon or Mars;
  • Using an app or a physical model to visualize weather on Mars.

Six global winners will be selected from local submissions. The winning teams will each receive a support package to continue polishing their solutions.

The Toronto event, which will be hosted at the Royal Ontario Museum, is expecting 125 people with a variety of skills to compete or become mentors. 

"We've got a good mix of do-it-yourself-ers, as well as the best from Toronto's developers community and more seasoned aerospace engineers," said Jonathan Moneta, co-organizer of the Toronto chapter.

Moneta, who also hosted the city's Mars Curiosity Rover landing party last August, added it's not just about having fun this time.

"It's about bringing highly experienced engineers and developers to build things that are quite useful and practical for NASA and for everyone."

Open source projects

Meanwhile, the University of Manitoba community in Winnipeg is assembling its own teams to tackle some of the challenges.

"We want at least one or two of the things that come out of the event to … be of interest to local business and to have some actual practical applications," said organizer Dario Schor, a computer engineering student at the university.

Schor said the event features the collaborative model of scientific explorations. Participants will use openly available data about NASA technology and its missions. Once completed, their projects will also be open sourced for others to build on.

The inaugural space app challenge in 2012 attracted over 2000 participants from 17 countries. Montreal and Vancouver also hosted small gatherings.

Some of the winning entries from last year include:

  • Planet Hopper: an interactive guide for school children that filters planets by brightness, size and distance;
  • Strange Desk: an app that allows citizen scientists to report curious phenomena in their neighbourhoods.

Registration is currently open for both Toronto and Winnipeg locations. Participants can sign up on their respective websites.